Blanket surveillance? Are you serious?

The blanket surveillance of the whole Maltese population suggested by Nationalist MP and IT entrepreneur Ivan Bartolo, as reported by Lovin Malta is a chilling reminder of what panic and difficult times have led to in the past and can lead to in the future. Lovin Malta reports that Bartolo, apart from tracking people in quarantine through their phones, and this it seems without any due process and supervision by courts or the data protection commissioner, has also proposed that everyone is made to don “high-tech wearables which would be able to detect people’s vital signs such as their temperature, a potential symptom of the coronavirus” and to track people’s movement every second of the day. The over the top proposals are reminiscent of the control freakery of totalitarian regimes.

Any restriction on fundamental rights to fight the COVID-19 outbreak must be as limited as possible in its duration, and in any case effective, necessary and proportionate. The crisis cannot be used as a pretext for destroying democratic checks and balances and for mass surveillance and data collection by private companies on behalf of Governments. Mass surveillance as proposed by Ivan Bartolo is unacceptable. It seems more of a way to introduce new surveillance products to governments as something essential, and make people get used to the idea of large-scale surveillance, in the meantime boosting the profits of AI/IT companies rather than an effective way to really counter the current crisis. 

The European Data Protection Board has recently issued a statement with regard to processing of personal data. While anonymised and aggregated data, including from mobile phone networks, might be useful for assessing the effectiveness of distancing measures, we reject any individualised tracking based on this data, since it is too diffuse anyway to locate and trace contacts. Strict controls must ensure that individuals cannot be re-identified and not used for other purposes, such as by companies to market their services or products. Instead of mass surveillance and tracking people, testing facilities are the answer to controlling ‘the peak’ of COVID-19 infections. It is paramount, that democratic, parliamentary oversight and a clearly defined expiration period is set out for these emergency measures and that they are dismantled gradually with an improvement or solving of the COVID-19 crisis.

What is needed is investment in public services, including community services, community policing and countering the digital divide. The vast majority of people who feel part of a community and taken care of will cooperate. What we need is investment in people and not in algorithms policing people. Even when police intervention is necessary, human beings can communicate better, empathise and help people do the right thing at this particular moment in time. AI evangelists are peddling the myth that the deployment of technology is the answer to everything. As the Greens in the European Parliament and others have proposed, on an EU level EU institutions and Member States must urgently find and deploy every eurocent of unallocated EU budget and mobilise all non-committed money in the EU budget – whether under the Common Agriculture Policy, Cohesion funds, European Globalisation adjustment fund or European Social fund to meet the medical, social and economic needs of the fight against COVID-19.

Ralph Cassar
Tuesday 31 March 2020